By Marysa Enis

Least restrictive environment isn’t just a box to fill out in IEP paperwork, and it isn’t just the law, either. It’s arguably the most meaningful conversation an IEP committee can have, yet it is rarely given the attention it deserves. Today, our content writer gives a first-hand account of what it means to follow the spirit and the letter of the law.

Back Story

Believe it or not, I absolutely love IEP meetings. The love affair started in 2003, except that it didn’t start out as love. It started more like panic. It was my first year as a special education teacher and every student on my caseload, all 32 of them, had their annual IEP meeting due in September.

Slow down and consider that for a second: First-year teacher … barely introduced to special education law … with 32 eighth grade students … whose academic levels ranged from pre-k to grade-level … whose lives, and therefore needs, were entirely unknown to me.

I called my mentor and cried. My mentor said to march right into the principal’s office and tell her there is no way I could do it. The principal smiled, said, “Yes you can,” and walked away.

That was that. I did it. In a pre-technology era of carbon copy paperwork, I reported on 150+ goals for students I did not yet know. Hand wrote 150+ goals, accommodations, and schedules for students I did not yet know. Scheduled and rescheduled meetings. Worked around parent, teacher, and administrator needs. Sent and resent notices. Made home visits and follow-up phone calls. And, most importantly, poured through the IEP process with a fine-tooth comb. I studied the spirit and the letter of the law in more detail and with more vigor than I have ever done anything in my life. By the end of 2004, having re-held every meeting in the spring, I had learned to love IEP meetings.

The Spirit and the Letter of the Law

Fast forward to 2019. There are a million stories I’d love to tell you about that year and the years that followed. I’d love to hear your stories, too. But today is about LRE and why it is arguably the most important, yet overlooked, moment of an IEP meeting.

What is LRE?

Least restrictive environment (LRE)  is a specific requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA ) that states,

“To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are nondisabled; and Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

That’s the letter of the law. In short, it means that the ultimate goal of an IEP is to keep kids in the same classes they would be in if they didn’t have a disability. Committees are supposed to talk about the potential good and bad effects of their plan on students, then tweak as needed. Unfortunately, there are a great many things committees are supposed to do, and meetings can get reeeeeeeally tedious and long. It can be awfully tempting to speed things up at the end, especially when there are seven people in a room and most of them have children waiting for them somewhere.

When people have too much on their plates, their brains do something rather annoying: automatically decide which things are important and which things can be pushed to the bottom of the list (that’s why you forget more when you’re under stress). When it comes to IEP meetings, LRE is often pushed aside, and misconceptions about what it means don’t help. So, let’s set some things straight:

  1. LRE is a continuum

You can’t have a truthful discussion about which supports may help a kid and which may cause harm if you don’t really have options in the first place. Children need scaffolding and flexibility to learn (i.e. be met at their zone of proximal development). School counselors, nurses, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, teachers, students, administrative assistants, cafeteria workers, behavior analysts, social workers, coaches, etc. are all part of the continuum. Discussions about LRE shouldn’t be limited to the traditional “do we push-in, pull-out, or move to a new school?” line of thinking.

2. LRE is not synonymous with inclusion

Somewhere along the way, people began to confuse “LRE” with “gen ed classroom.”  As in, the more time a student spends in general ed classes, the closer they are to LRE. While general education classes are often LRE, that certainly isn’t always the case. “Least restrictive” means “least restrictive for a particular student.” When committees confuse these terms, it can trick them into believing they have achieved LRE when, in fact, they have not.

3. LRE can not be determined first

There are a ton of variables to consider when determining LRE, which is why meetings are meant to occur in a very specific order. Each discussion builds on the one before, guiding teams toward the best possible plan. When committees follow the agenda with integrity, they will know what a student is ready to learn and how they will best learn it before they discuss LRE. The point of LRE is not to put a child in as many general education classes as possible. The point is to discuss how general education classes can provide the support the committee has already determined is necessary.

4. LRE is not the same for every student

As part of the discussion about LRE, committees are meant to consider the actual benefits and harms they observe for students in their school, not just theoretical ones. It’s common for committees to cite things like, “exposure to typically developing peers” as a benefit, and “stigma” as harm, but the reality is far more complex. Some students are perfectly happy to float along in the general education classroom because it is easier for them to blend in and stay off the teacher’s radar, but in doing so, they avoid academic growth. Other students may have high anxiety and use whatever behavior they can to leave the classroom, even if they are academically capable and have support in place. In these and other cases, committees must determine if there is a way to address student needs without removing them from their general education classroom.

Why It Matters

Here’s the thing: It’s not always necessary to slow down and dive into details for every part of the IEP meeting. When parents and teachers are on the same page and students are in a groove, LRE can be a no-brainer. But when plans need tweaking, emotions run high, and students are getting lost in the shuffle, it pays for teams to take their time discussing – really discussing – LRE. Try it and you might just learn to love IEP meetings, too.

Could your IEP committee use help developing plans that support LRE? Our team of school psychologists, LEPs, and BCBAs are all former public school employees who understand the complexity of pairing school systems with individual student needs. Contact us for a free consultation about how Psyched Services can support parents and educators in your district. We believe in the power of partnerships and collaboration to help children learn so they can do.